by Robert Camel of Tumalo Family Farm
The idea of becoming a fish farmer began with my roots in commercial fishing. In 1976, I moved from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Key West, Florida, without any thought about what I wanted to do. I always enjoyed fishing growing up and quickly discovered the Keys was a fishing paradise. I fell in love with all the adventure the ocean brought. I enjoyed all aspects associated with fishing and within a year got a job on a commercial fishing boat. It was filled with danger and excitement that words could not do justice. For some reason it was supposed to end, and I moved back to Pittsburgh and started a career in construction. It was then, in 1986, I came across an article in the Pittsburgh newspaper about a couple of guys down in West Virginia. They had started a fish farm raising white perch in grain silos built into the ground. I was fascinated with their story and after much research [learned] the ocean would not be capable of sustaining the future demand for fish. Even when I was a commercial fisherman, the decline in the fish stocks was noticeable. I remember my captain would tell me how abundant the fish were in the 60’s and early 70’s, and by the time I quit it was very hard to make a good living. There just weren’t enough fish left, and they were getting increasingly difficult to find.
In the spring of 1986, I found myself in Portland visiting my sister. The skiing at Mt. Hood that year wasn’t the best and they suggested we go down and try Mt. Bachelor. The second I crossed over the Deschutes River in Warm Springs I knew this is where I was supposed to be. It wasn’t until 1996 before I finally arrived in Bend for good. At the time, it was a growing town with lots of construction opportunities, but the desire to raise fish never left me.
Fifteen years later the desire was still with me, and the reasons to follow this dream only became stronger. As of now, the U.S. currently imports over 90 percent of the seafood consumed and with population and per capita consumption steadily increasing, the over-fished oceans just can’t keep up. Also during this time, growth in the aquaculture industry was increasing around 15 percent per year worldwide. In 2010 it was apparent that new technology was far enough along that I felt it was now possible to start such a business. In 2015 we commenced operation and began raising fish. We chose to raise Barramundi for the health benefits. It has the highest omega-3 content of any white fish and is high in protein and low in fat, as well as having great taste and is very versatile when it comes cooking. Our Barramundi fry are imported from Australia, with 5,000 only weighing one and a half pounds. They are then raised to around two pounds — which can take up to nine months — until they are market size and ready to be sold. It took a great deal of time to get approval to raise them in Oregon, and it can only be done indoors in recirculating systems such as ours. Seafood Watch gives Barramundi that are raised in recirculating systems in the U.S. the highest rating for sustainability and lowest impact on the environment. Our fish are raised in pure, pathogen free water that is sourced from a deep well. We grow in low densities and never have to use aquaculture drugs of any kind.
From here our operation only continued to grow — this time by adding on a greenhouse component. The idea of growing vegetables from fish waste is not new and has been used for thousands of years. Today’s aquaponic systems produce great tasting vegetables. It has become a rapidly growing trend across the nation, and will play an important part in the future of farming.
At Tumalo Family Farm, we’ve development a hybrid system that separates the fish from the vegetable operation. The main advantage of this is greatly increased fish production over traditional aquaponics. The solids are collected through special filtration equipment and go through a liquid composting process. This produces clear, odor free nutrient water that can then be used to grow plants hydroponically in the greenhouse next to the fish building. The high-tech greenhouse enables us to grow very productively on a year-round basis. Being able to produce fresh, local and nutrient-dense vegetables during the off season for most local farmers is very challenging due to many limiting factors. This is especially true for a certified organic operation such as ours. We have been successfully able to address these limiting factors in unique ways. One example is the CO2 requirements of plants in a greenhouse. During the winter months, it’s very important to hold in as much heat as possible. This means almost no ventilation during the coldest days. This is where the problem is found. Plants will quickly use up the available CO2, and in organic operations the use of synthetic CO2 is prohibited. On the other hand, fish produce a lot of CO2 that gets locked up in the water which is harmful for the fish. To combat this, we developed a CO2 vacuum stripper that the water flows through. We are able capture this CO2 and send it into the greenhouse; which means even on the coldest days we never have to ventilate, saving us valuable energy. In addition, increased CO2 levels above 500 ppm have the added benefit of allowing plants to thrive in the low light conditions that are common during winter days.
Since we are not a typical farm, the learning curve is particularly steep. The design and construction were challenging, but my background in construction was very helpful. Learning how to raise fish from small fry — coupled with the near 90 percent failure rate in the business — I had many a sleepless nights. Water chemistry, biology, micro biology and mechanical skills are essential. On top of this, raising vegetables hydroponically has its own challenges. The role of beneficial bacteria and fungi in the system is extremely important, as well as the proper balance of nutrients and the effects pH as on them.
Having a detailed integrated pest and disease management plan to prevent problems is also very important. Every plant has its own nutrient, light and temperature requirements. After test-growing many different vegetables, we are close to specializing on just a select few — English cucumbers year-around, and zucchini and tomatoes late fall to into early summer. As of now we distribute locally through companies such as Agricultural Connections. We plan on developing the local market next year as our Barramundi production increases; but as of now we currently we have buyers in Portland for all the fish we produce. It will take another year or two to maximize our production and knowledge base at which time we are hoping to expand on to a different property.
photos courtesy of Tumalo Family Farm